Harte of the Rowl: a new book about the epic Frank Harte song collection

An Irishman’s Diary

As Gustav Mahler remarked: "Tradition is not the worship of ashes but the preservation of fire." You might not expect a great classical composer to feature in a book about Irish ballad singing and yet there Mahler is, in Terry Moylan's introduction to A Living Voice – the Frank Harte Song Collection, not only featuring but setting the keynote.

As Moylan makes clear, however, the worlds of Harte and Mahler were otherwise sharply at odds. Folk singers, like jazz musicians, never perform anything the same way twice, and unlike classical performers, do not depend on notation. Harte was more committed than most to this philosophy.

He regarded the concept of correct keys “as an irrelevance, if not an impertinence”. When singing, he frequently set off at pitches that proved unsustainable, forcing restarts, something he warned audiences not to feel embarrassed about, “because he certainly felt none”.

But Mahler’s metaphor was nevertheless apt, and doubly so, in that fireplaces are central to many of the best singing sessions. And Harte would have agreed that the important thing is to let ancient songs come alive again and even, sometimes, surprise the singer, as they did an old woman who, while being recorded by an English collector, interrupted herself at one point to grab him by the lapels and say: “Isn’t it beautiful?”


Dublin-born, and an architect by day, Frank Harte (1933-2005) found what became his other profession via “a chance hearing of a tinker singing and selling his ballad sheets at a fair in the town of Boyle”. From that moment, he too was obsessed with songs, especially of the kind that told stories.

His own epiphany must have coincided closely with the one undergone by Irish pub owners in the wake of the Clancy Brothers’ storming of America

As Harte summed up in a reissue of his first recorded collection: “It was the 1960s and a time when publicans, instead of throwing us out of the pub for singing and playing music, realised they could increase their turnover by promoting [something] previously looked upon solely as a nuisance.”

His devotion to oral tradition presented challenges when trying to preserve it. For that first record, in 1967, he had to fly to England and be accompanied by a concertina player unaccustomed to performing by ear. Instead the man would first listen to Harte’s singing and “write down the dots” in preparation to play. But when Harte started each ballad again, the new version never quite agreed with the Englishman’s notation. Still, they ended up recording two albums in as many days.

Singing aside, Harte’s collections were always accompanied by the fruits of “an enormous amount of research”. It is thanks to the sleeve notes of his “And Listen to my Song” album, for example, that I finally know what “the heart of the rowl” (as in Poor old Dicey Reilly) was. Not bread, it seems, but tobacco, which used to be sold in coils. When left lying around in shops, these dried up on the outside, so that “the best and sweetest part of the tobacco was [...] in the centre”.

Similarly fascinating is a footnote to the 2007 collection of labouring songs, There's Gangs of Them Digging, concerning the unexpected boon that Adolf Hitler brought to Irish farm labourers. In the early 1930s, young men hired themselves for six months at a time in return for £20, a system described by one commentator of the period as a "slave market". But by 1940, the sector was experiencing dramatic inflation. "It was Hitler and the war that put up the wages of the farm labourer," Harte quotes Derry singer Eddie Butcher saying: "The first week I remember I got a £3 cheque and I didn't know what I was going to do with all this money."

The book has some nice flashes of humour too, as when, justifying the inclusion of the hackneyed Molly Malone in a 1987 album, Harte first concedes that the ballad was by then more associated with "trained singers, choirs, or raucous rugby players". But he adds: "just because a song has fallen on hard times and mixed in the above company for too long, it should not be neglected by the unaccompanied singer."

Essentially an anthology of his sleeve notes and illustrations, with the lyrics and a partial notation of all songs, Living Voice - the Frank Harte Collection is a magnificent thing. It runs to 400 pages, between soft covers, but has the shape and weight of a presentation tin of biscuits. With Christmas coming, it could be the perfect present for the ballad singer in your house.